I write about crime. I’ve been writing for more than twenty-five years. That’s an average life sentence for murder. I believe that criminals and the criminal justice system are a window into our values, morality, and the way we define ourselves. Over a dozen of my novels are about crime in Asia, mainly set in Thailand. The world in which I started to be published with His Lordship’s Arsenal in 1985 has changed in significant ways. It is time that as a writer I sit back and assess what the world of 2011 looks like from the point of view of an author who has been riding the literary train for a quarter of a century. What is derailing that train can be summed up in one word: internet. The place where you are reading this: on a computer screen, a smart phone, an iPad, or another of the long list of devices that make you feel the experience of real time.
I’ll start with tradition and history. Artists such as painters, writers, and musicians come out of the Renaissance tradition, which celebrates individual genius, original composition, and creative insight. Our culture has been built on the collective efforts of such labour. (The 1874 second edition of Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man is filled with acknowledgments to the many letter he received—in the three years from the original publication.) We viewed such men and women as exceptional individuals. In a time when individual accomplishment and genius had reached its high point in almost every culture where such people were allowed a degree of freedom to work.
The internet has changed the fundamental nature of how we view artistic workers. What is interestingly clear is that we’ve always been connected to a local hive like bees. Artists would go out and bring back pollen and the nectar would be drunk by a section of those inside the hive. It was never anything other than nectar for a small cross section of those living inside. We fool ourselves thinking otherwise.
The reaction to the internet has turned shrill and gone from the defensive to attack mode. We are warned of the dangerous possibilities of the internet. Authors, professors, pundits, psychologists—the industry of knowledge workers—are coming out to condemn the new world order brought in by the internet. New technology often causes a backlash especially among those with a vested interest in the existing system of information distribution, assessment, gathering and analysis.
Laura Miller writing for The Guardian observed:
It is what the internet lures out of us – hubris, daydreams, avarice, obsessions – that makes it so potent and so volatile. TV’s power is serenely impervious; it does all the talking, and we can only listen or turn it off. But the internet is at least partly us; we write it as well as read it, perform for it as well as watch it, create it as well as consume it. Watching TV is a solitary activity that feels like a communal one, while the internet is a communal experience masquerading as solitude.
Not long ago Laura Miller’s views would have circulated in a narrow circle and transmigration to the larger world of writers and as a result would have been remote. In 2011, I can follow up on a blog, adding to the conversation, becoming a contributor, a participant, and a collaborator. The significance of the internet is the notion of collaboration. Even if not requested or wanted, it appears on the internet where communities exchange ideas. Those comment boxes that follow articles are read as avidly as the main article. Often the article of the main article returns in the comment section to reply, defend, explain or amend his or her original article. That’s how collaboration in cyberspace works.
It is taking the author an adjustment to the format, style and function of the internet. The inter-reaction aspect is forceful and immediate. Minutes after an article appears, a comment may follow. As soon as advanced copies of books are circulated, opinions, comments and review appear on blogs and readers comment sections of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. There are places for comments by other readers of reviews on Amazon. Readers are encouraged to share their views. If I tell you that I liked Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu face-to-face, you might tell another person or two. But if I post a review on Amazon, LibraryThing, GoodReads, and many other places online where booklovers meet, the chances are that my views will be read by a great many other people that I don’t know and who wouldn’t otherwise learn my opinion on the characters, story, plot and authenticity of the setting.
Of course, what I liked and didn’t like would say as much about my preference in reading than about the book. That is the nature of literary criticism. Only now rather than a handful of literary critics, there are thousands, sheltered in a wide number of different online communities. They talk to each other, to authors, and those struggling to write or publish a book.
The authors suffer from being dethroned from the center of the literary universe.
We now orbit around a system of other powerful forces, people whose views appear in the same space online as anyone else. A lot of writers hate the internet because they find it humbling to no longer occupy the high cultural ground. There is no space left to hide once you are socially networked. The isolated self vanishes.
There is also not a little of disdain of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. The naysayers see them as media that destroy our ability to focus and concentrate on books that may be demanding, and require the kind of attention that is incompatible with multitasking. I recently visited a friend in hospital in Bangkok who had undergone a 6-hour operation. The operation was a complete success. My friend is well. We discussed how anyone would have wished to go under the knife if the surgeon was multitasking, checking emails, text messages, replying to a Facebook friend while doing his medical work. We both agreed that no one would be happy with such a distracted doctor.
I wonder if we might be making some dubious assumptions about the human brain. Neuroscience tells us that the brain has plasticity. As I understand that term—and I am no doctor—plasticity means the brain continues to form new neural networks, establish new connection throughout adulthood as the person learns a new language, takes up a musical instrument, or other intellectually stimulating activities. These activities change the brain. Experience and expertise also change the brain. Professional chess players use more than one module of the brain when looking at the board. According to the New York Times, “What set the experts apart was that parts of their right brain hemispheres—which are more involved in pattern recognition—also lit up with activity. The experts were processing the information in two places at once.”
Frankly we know very little about the properties that fire on a sub-neural route. We might be surprised to find in another generation or two, that children who were raised from the beginning with multiple channel inputs will be able to switch back and forth between frequencies with great skill and ease because the early plasticity of the brain is much greater than in an adult brain, and, in theory, it is possible that this data input may structure the way of thinking about information, understanding it, storing, accessing and applying such information that does permit multitasking in ways to us would seem impossible.
The internet is an ongoing experiment in a couple of divergent though seemingly connected areas. The way culture is acquired, discussed, discarded, revised, merged, defended and exported from one human hive to the next, and how the growth of super hives, have caused instability and conflicted in many parts of the world. No hive is able to maintain the original integrity of input and this has caused the rulers of such hives to react with fear, anger, and force.
Add the cultural bulldozer that the internet is making through one hive after another, the developments in science are teaching us new things about human consciousness and also teaching a process or way of thinking about causation, evidence, truth, doubt and process that spills over into the cultural realm.
What is capable of knocking down cultures built on local ideology or religious doctrine also stands to demolish the foundation of the arts, including literature, which has until recently been pretty much an inside view of the social, economic and political development within the local hive. What is ‘local’ will never be the same in literature, war, or science. The lid of obscurity and secrecy has been removed. We also know from “neuro-imaging and cognitive neuropsychology that we create our “selves” through narrative.” We are a product of our pattern recognizing “selves” and what seems like a unified whole is likely a diverse number of modular units smoothed into a continuous narrative. Given that we process information on a human scale, we learn to accept a fair amount of deception and flaws are inherent in the input and output links. Our “self” is distorted as a result. That is what it means to be human and is the subject for countless books.
WikiLeaks has been sandblasting secrecy inside global and local hives, exposing the secrets that big bees had pretty much kept to themselves. And obscurity isn’t quite what it used to be either. The randomness of fame is reinforced by YouTube viral clips of double rainbows or dancing dogs. What touches or moves people to laughter or tears is played out daily in cyberspace. Everyone gets an audition. And no one knows who the masses will select. It could be vampires or a school for magicians, or a treasure hunt. The internet celebrity is as much worthy as a celebrity (and as fragile) as one chosen in a more traditional way such as a movie star.
We don’t like that our lives are far more deterministic than we wish to believe. We clutch to our freewill like a drowning man to a life buoy. Even when the fact is that our social organization is much closer to bees and ants. Like most inhabits of a changing landscape we want to stop the engine of change, we want to step back to the world where we worked inside our hive, and you worked inside yours and no one cared about your opinion inside one of those foreign hives. That’s all gone.
The evidence shows a correlation between the brain structure and the particular brain function. There is no suggestion that brain structure can be matured in different ways thus influencing the final brain function. Function follows structure, and the structure is being altered. A lot of people are quite happy with the old structure of brain maturation. What are the consequences we can expect arising from these changes?
Our special place or our privileged position in the new restructured global hive has been lost. The internet is our version of Nicolaus Copernicus. We’ve adjusted quite nicely to the fact that the earth isn’t the center of the universe, and later to the fact the sun isn’t the center, and more recently that there is no real center. As writers we are still smarting from the Copernicus moment and it is making us unsettled. While we feel ourselves to be stable, substantial and real, we will learn to come to terms with the fact it is fuzzy, blurry and uncertain. Approximations of reality have always been good enough for survival. There is no reason to believe that will change.
We should understand that not being the center doesn’t mean we won’t have a role, that our voices will be lost, but our aloneness, our solitary, isolated existence where those who read our books won’t be readers or fans in the old sense. They will be our collaborators, and our work becomes more than a solitary activity for others, but something that creates a space for others to occupy, a place for community to form and discuss, and we will find ourselves altering the notion of when a book is finished because in the new world ahead books will never been finished, or films or paintings, they will become something beyond our wildest imaginations.
Who knows, perhaps inhabiting a space inside the brain of the surgeon who is performing that 6-hour operation, and rather than act as a distraction, some element of the parallel processing of the mind may enhance the skill, accuracy and focus of the man holding the knife.